If you’re bored with constant conversations about Covid-19, spare a thought for Brendan O’Connor. With immaculate timing, O’Connor began hosting his show (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday and Sunday) just as the coronavirus crisis took hold in Ireland, and has spent most of his weekends since talking about it.
The problem for the columnist-cum- presenter isn’t so much the all-pervasiveness of the pandemic – it’s an inescapable subject on current-affairs radio – than the way it has constrained his programme’s direction. The slot O’Connor took over from the late Marian Finucane was a magazine show, the perfect platform for holding forth on the issues of the day. Unfortunately, with public-health matters dominating all, the periodical in question has turned out to be the Lancet.
For instance, no matter how O’Connor tries to switch things up on the Sunday newspaper panel, he invariably ends back at square one, dissecting the latest twists in the Covid-19 saga. Little wonder he sounds a tad dyspeptic as he ponders the possibility of travel limits being increased to 10km if the infection rate improves. “Hallelujah,” he wearily jeers, “Is that really all they’re going to give us if we’re behaving ourselves?”
With Level 5 restrictions kicking in, the panel’s conversation is unsurprisingly jaded in tone as well. Food entrepreneur Domini Kemp sounds pessimistic about the hospitality sector’s survival prospects, while political scientist Gary Murphy remarks in resigned manner that the “one-size-fits-all approach is wearing on people”. But while heavy on downbeat mood, the discussion seems lighter on substantive content.
Like most of us, the panellists are able to reflect on their experiences and offer up opinions on the pandemic, but are less qualified when it comes to detailed medical knowledge. “I’m not a public health expert,” NUI Galway history lecturer Sarah Anne Buckley notes at one point. “It’s not holding anyone back today, we’re all entitled to our own thoughts on things,”O’Connor replies. Fair enough, though one might expect a bit more from a flagship radio show on the national broadcaster. At times such as this, the programme is less like a respected medical journal than a first-aid leaflet for beginners.
Elsewhere O’Connor does steer proceedings onto other matters, though Saturday’s interview with Shane Ross, the former minister for transport, is more like a jolly reunion than a political grilling. Though O’Connor asks the odd tough question, the atmosphere is affable, as Ross retells anecdotes from his new memoir about his time in government. There are some candid personal asides, as when Ross recalls why he quit drinking in the 1980s: “It was a menace in my life.” But even allowing for the unbuttoned ambience of weekend radio, it still seems too easy an encounter: that both men were longtime colleagues on the Sunday Independent doesn’t help this impression.
It’s frustrating, because O’Connor can be an arresting host. Sunday’s regular culture slot underlines his broader knowledge of everything from Netflix shows to the novels of Sally Rooney, while his humour can be biting: “I hate Coldplay as much as the next man,” O’Connor says as he prefaces his closing song. Overall, however, his show seems stifled by current circumstances.
A spiky joust
Things are more lively when Philip Boucher-Hayes, guest presenter on Today with Claire Byrne (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), hosts a spiky joust between erstwhile government colleagues Shane Ross (for it is he again) and Senator Regina Doherty. Ross endures far rougher treatment this time, with his memoir drawing the ire of former ministerial colleague Doherty for breaking cabinet confidentiality. It’s a transgression she deems as “unedifying” and “naked attention-seeking”. “It leaves us in no doubt that he had no interest in being a minister,” she says to Boucher-Hayes. “I even feel guilty being on with you, because it’s giving him more publicity,” Doherty adds, by way of having her cake and eating it.
In response, Ross adopts a wounded bumptiousness that starkly contrasts with the chummy informality of his chat with O’Connor. He understands Doherty’s anger, but wants to show how government works. As for cabinet confidentiality, he says memoirs by Garret FitzGerald and Gemma Hussey were similarly indiscreet, while ministers continually leak to favoured journalists anyway.
None of which washes with Doherty. “I’m not angry, I’m disappointed,” she proclaims, though her headmistress-y loftiness is undermined when she breaks the seal of secrecy herself to reveal how Ross “went bananas” at one meeting. For good measure, she dubs him a “tell-tale tattler”. If this is how people behave in cabinet, no wonder they want to keep it quiet.
Boucher-Hayes, for his part, brings his best air of patrician bemusement to proceedings. “Gosh,” is the closest he comes to expressing surprise at the “zingers” he’s hearing, preferring to quiz his guests on more specific constitutional and political matters. Of course, the host’s calm demeanour only accentuates the unseemly squabbling around him. It’s an object lesson in how to maximise an item’s impact.
A more dignified mood reigns on Sunday with Miriam (RTÉ Radio 1), when travel writer Fionn Davenport tells Miriam O’Callaghan how he was adopted after being born in a mother-and-baby home. Prompted by controversial Government legislation about the records of the commission of investigation into these institutions, Davenport’s testimony is by turns candid and reflective, as he recounts how his birth mother was effectively tricked into consenting to his adoption.
While his adoptive parents loved him “without limit”, he notes that “at the root of any adoption is a sense of loss”, even more so when “conducted under this veil of shame and secrecy”. “In order to reclaim my present I need to know my past,” Davenport concludes, adding that the commission was “centrally important for us to recapture our stories”.
It’s an eloquent and poignant plea for openness, which O’Callaghan moderates with a light touch. We could do with more conversations like this.